Lakes of the Clouds
excerpts from the book
Incredible Backcountry Trails 
by David Day

home page
 Need more information?

Incredible Backcountry Trails
  • access info for 120 trailheads
  • 90 colorful trail maps
  • 305 full color photographs
  • loads of hiking tips
  • book store price:  $22.95
    buy it here for only


    click to order

    Distance: 9.1 miles (round trip)

    Walking time:  6 1/2 hours

    : 2,230 ft. gain/loss
       Gibson Creek Trailhead (start): 9,400 ft.
       Lower Lake: 11,470 ft.
       Upper Lake: 11,630 ft.

    Trail: Well marked, but extremely rocky in places.

    Season: Midsummer through mid fall. The trail is generally covered with snow from late November through early July.

    Vicinity: Near Westcliffe

    Lakes of the CloudsLakes of the Clouds


    home page

    Links to other sites: 

    Ordering books & Maps/P>

    Comments about this site or our book:


    Three very pleasant high-altitude lakes on the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains are the goal of this hike. The lakes are situated on the edge of timberline in a high alpine valley that is almost completely surrounded by 13,000-foot peaks. One of the peaks, Spread Eagle Peak (13,423 ft.) is only 0.6 mile southeast of the lower lake, and is a popular climb for those looking for an additional challenge. All three lakes also support a thriving population of cutthroat trout, and if you want to spend more time in the area you will find some nice camping spots beneath the trees on the north side of the lower lake.

    From the trailhead a short spur trail proceeds west through a grove of aspen trees for about 100 yards before joining the Rainbow Trail. The Rainbow Trail is a popular 100-mile-long ATV route that runs just outside the wilderness boundary along the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristos. Many of the footpaths that enter these mountains begin on the Rainbow Trail, so it is frequently used by backpackers and ATV riders alike.

    Turn right when you reach the Rainbow Trail and walk north for another 0.5 mile until you see a sign marking the beginning of the Swift Creek Trail. There you must turn west again to begin the long trek upward to the headwaters of Swift Creek where the Lakes of the Clouds are located. The grade is only moderately steep, but the rocky terrain makes walking difficult for the first mile. Erosion seems to have removed every last bit of the soil from the path, leaving only rocks.

    For 1.6 miles the trail follows the south side of the Swift Creek glacial valley, then it dips down to cross the creek. When you first arrive at the water’s edge it appears that there is no way to cross without getting your feet wet. But if you walk upstream for 30 feet you will come to a place where a few well-placed logs make the crossing much easier.

    The gradient of the streambed increases dramatically above the creek crossing, causing the trail to get steeper as it climbs up the north side of the canyon. As you climb you can hear the roar of the water crashing downward over a series of long cascades below the trees on your left. After 5 minutes the path again levels out, and if you are observant you will see a vague spur trail branching off toward a viewpoint above one to the waterfalls. Unfortunately, however, the view is seriously obstructed by the trees, and to get closer would require some major bushwhacking.

    0.7 mile after crossing the stream the trail arrives at the junction where the Swift Creek Trail meets the Lakes of the Clouds Trail. Soon it approaches the water again, passing through an area of near-perfect creek-side campsites, and then heads upward along the base of a steep scree field. Finally, as you approach timberline, the path levels out to become a more pleasant walk. You should arrive at the lower Lake of the Clouds about 45 minutes after leaving the trail junction.

    The most notable thing you will see as you approach the lower lake is the distinctive Spread Eagle Peak, a cone-shaped thirteener that rises from the south shore of the lake just over a half-mile away. The mountain is most impressive when viewed around sunset during the summer months when the sun is in the northwest. It towers above the lake like a gigantic Egyptian pyramid.

    The trail proceeds along the western side of the lower lake for 200 yards before veering away toward the outlet of the middle lake. Just before reaching the outlet the trail splits, with the right fork circling around the middle lake and the left fork going directly to the south shore of the upper lake. The trail to the right eventually ends on the edge of a large bog that occupies the northern shore of the upper lake.

    Spread Eagle Peak

    As mentioned before, Spread Eagle Peak is a common destination for people who want to spend more time in the area and are looking for an additional challenge. The standard route to the top of this 13,423-foot peak begins on the south shore of the upper lake. Head southeast through the woods above the lake for 200 yards until you run into a north-flowing drainage. Follow this drainage up the slope for about 0.4 mile, then veer to the left of the drainage towards the saddle on the ridge above. When you reach the saddle simply turn east and make your way along the top of the ridge for the last 0.7 mile to the summit. The total distance of this climb from the upper lake is 3.4 miles round trip with an elevation gain of 1,800 feet.

    Lakes of the Clouds Trail

    As is indicated on the map, there are two trails leading to the Lakes of the Clouds. The trail described above is the Swift Creek Trail, but it is also possible to use the Lakes of the Clouds Trail that starts further north on the Rainbow Trail. The Lakes of the Clouds Trail is actually a better trail than the one described here-less rocky and not as steep. But it is also 0.4 miles longer and requires another 1.3 miles of walking along the Rainbow Trail to reach the trailhead. There are some nice views into Swift Water Canyon from the Lakes of the Clouds Trailhead, but other than that the scenery along both trails is substantially the same.

    If you do this hike along the Lakes of the Clouds Trail the round trip distance will be 3.4 miles longer than the hike already described. Just for the sake of diversity you might want to consider using the Lakes of the Clouds Trail for your return trip from the lakes. In that case add 1.7 miles onto the length of the hike. The elevation gain along either trail is about the same.


    The book includes more text, more photographs, and trail maps.

    If you are interested in a supplemental map of the Brush Creek Lakes
    we recommend:
    Sangre de Cristo Mountains  (Trails Illustrated, map #138)

    Click here for DISCOUNTED MAP ORDERS

    [top of page]

    [table of contents]

    [home page]

    [ordering information] 

    © Rincon Publishing Company, all rights reserved